Singing the Blues
Monday, November 28, 2005
ST. LOUIS -- When St. Louis Blues owner Bill Laurie decided to sell the team, he slashed payroll and shipped out star defenseman Chris Pronger rather than signing him to a long-term deal, believing that would make the team more attractive to potential buyers.
For now, the franchise is suffering mightily for it. The sad-sack Blues have four victories in the first 22 games this season and are worst in the NHL with 11 points. Their run of 25 consecutive playoff appearances, the longest in U.S. professional sports, is seriously threatened only a quarter of the way through the season.
"I think everyone agreed we should have done far better than this," defenseman Christian Backman said. "Everyone feels we're capable, but we've got to find a way to do it.
"We're going through a tough stretch and I hope everyone can step up and get out of this together."
It's a tough stretch that's lasted all season. They've won two straight only once. They've lost a franchise-record seven straight at home, where historically they've dominated with a 217-118 record the previous 10 seasons.
They've suffered through a downward spike in attendance, with rows and rows of empty seats replacing almost nightly sellouts. The guess-the-crowd feature and make-some-noise meter are both gone, lest they cause embarrassment.
A week ago, there was a glimmer of hope. Players and coaches alike thought the worst was over after tight, inspired play sparked a rare victory at Detroit.
"We played the perfect game," Backman said. "We stuck to our game plan and put the puck in the right areas."
In the three games since, they've been outscored 8-0 in the third period. The latest indignity came Saturday night when the Columbus Blue Jackets erased a 3-2 deficit with a pair of goals that enabled them to leapfrog past the Blues at the bottom of the standings.
"I thought we had such a strong game in Detroit and I thought it was going to be a real building block for us moving forward," coach Mike Kitchen said. "That hasn't happened."
Sporadic execution since the victory at Detroit, and even overconfidence, has been to blame.
"We went over what made us successful in that game and we do it for two periods the last few games since then and we feel we're a good enough team to get away with that," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We have to move the puck forward and just keep things simple until we get out of it."
A bigger problem is a lack of talent. The Blues stayed out of the bustling free-agent market created by the lockout for the most part, choosing to build around the players they had left along with low-priced fill-ins after Pronger was traded to the Oilers and future Hall of Famer Al MacInnis retired.
The payroll is $31 million, or $8 million under the salary cap, and already seven players have made their NHL debut. Still, the Blues figured to battle for a playoff spot.
One of the remaining big-money players, forward Keith Tkachuk, has played in only four games. Tkachuk was suspended at the start of training camp for showing up about 20 pounds overweight, then missed time with groin and rib injuries.
New goalie Patrick Lalime thus far has been a profound disappointment with a 4.00 goals-against average that got him benched. Career minor leaguer Curtis Sanford won two straight, but has allowed 14 goals in the last three games.
Sanford accepts his part of the blame in the team's latest slump.
"It's goaltending, it's a lot of things," Sanford said. "I have to be better, and hopefully close down some teams."